The Virus Hunter

HIV, Ebola and the vast majority of other killer diseases have passed from animals to humans. Nathan Wolfe is searching for the next AIDS before it makes the leap–and is revolutionizing the way the world tries to control diseases in the process.

It’s nearly midday when Brice Bidja steps out of the tangled forest surrounding the African village of Messok in southeastern Cameroon, gripping a Russian 12-gauge shotgun in one hand and the limp body of a mustached monkey in the other. Bidja usually returns alone after his hunts, but on this morning a handful of foreigners tags along with him as he approaches his mud-brick hut. Among the researchers, logisticians, and documentarians is American virologist Nathan Wolfe.

Wolfe stands just outside as the others duck through the low doorway; inside, the glare of the tropical sun gives way to an easy reddish glow of firelight on the faces of Bidja’s wife Sandrine and their two small children. Bidja sets the monkey down on a palm frond and pulls out a sheet of filter paper provided by Wolfe’s organization, the Global Viral Forecasting Initiative (GVFI). Sandrine crouches and picks up a machete, then slices off one of the animal’s front legs and holds it over the paper, aiming the dripping blood at five printed circles. Once the targets are saturated, the hunter tucks the blood sample into a ziplock bag filled with silica gel packets and hands the bag to one of Wolfe’s colleagues. The group will run tests later to see if the animal that Bidja and his family would soon devour is infected with a particularly nasty virus that could jump to humans, ultimately becoming the next deadly pandemic.

Sandrine thrusts the monkey’s leg into the flames, perfuming the hut with burnt hair and skin. She sets it aside and continues the butchery as the foreigners come in closer with their cameras and notepads, documenting the blade’s passage through legs and tail and neck. At the doorway, Bidja chats with Wolfe, their simple French mixing with the sounds of splitting bones and separating tendons. Sandrine begins to open the monkey’s rib cage with sharp hacks of her machete, each of which unleashes a fine spray of blood. It’s too much for one of the visitors, who darts outside and makes a panicked reach into her backpack, pulling out a bottle of antibiotic gel.

“Oh, good, you brought hand sanitizer,” Wolfe says, exaggerating a stifled smirk. “That’ll protect you, don’t worry.”

Meanwhile, Sandrine uses a smaller knife to finish readying every part of the monkey, except the entrails, for her family’s use. Seeing the children growing restless, she reaches into the animal’s chest cavity and cuts out its heart and liver. She tosses the floppy organs to the kids, who roll them in their hands like Silly Putty, showing them proudly to Wolfe.

Solidly built, with curly hair and plump, whiskered cheeks, Wolfe, 38, is at the muddy-boots vanguard of an ambitious movement that seeks to shift the way the world approaches disease control, from containing outbreaks to launching preemptive strikes against emerging viruses. “If we look at AIDS or smallpox or Ebola, or any of the really bad shit that has emerged over the past century,” says Wolfe, “the vast majority of these pathogens has passed from animals to us. What we’re trying to do now is get upstream, way upstream, and catch the next HIV before it can explode into a killer pandemic.”

To do that, Wolfe has spent much of the past decade running alongside hunters like Bidja, collecting blood from them and their prey. That he chose the wilderness of southeastern Cameroon — one of the most challenging environments on Earth — is no accident. It was here, scientists now believe, that a chimp virus that would mutate into HIV made its first foray into the blood of a hunter like Brice Bidja. From its unwitting first host it would fan out around the world with a deadly, methodical efficiency, infecting more than 60 million people.

Now Wolfe is taking his “viral surveillance” project on the road, fueled by a burst of grants that will allow him to set up shop in other tropical hot spots that have histories of spawning deadly viruses, including cholera, bird flu, and SARS. Eventually he aims to create a worldwide infrastructure to supply researchers with a steady stream of blood from “sentinel populations,” such as bush-meat hunters in Africa, poultry farmers in southeast Asia, or vendors in the Chinese “wet markets” where live animals are bought and sold for food.

“Nathan’s work will help us fill major gaps in our understanding of what viruses are coming out, on an almost real-time basis,” says Mark Smolinksi, director of the new Predict and Prevent Initiative from Google.org, the tech giant’s philanthropic arm, which backs GVFI. “It’s not going too far to say that Nathan could find the next HIV — hopefully while it’s still circulating in animal reservoirs and hasn’t fully made the transition into humans.”

What’s driving interest in Wolfe’s work — and money to his projects — is the terrifying prospect that a new and unstoppable infectious disease could burst out of the jungle, blindsiding healthcare professionals and killing millions before an effective response can be organized. Of the more than 300 new infectious diseases that have struck humans since 1940, almost three-quarters have jumped from wild animals. The risks are increasing as modern societies stack the decks in favor of opportunistic microbes, with our closely packed cities, our changing climate, and our growing numbers of elderly.

Although science optimists predicted that serious infectious diseases would be conquered by now, the potential for outbreaks is growing as more global travelers carry viruses across borders. And as loggers and miners slash deeper into microbe-rich rain forests, more humans are coming into contact with animals that host rapidly mutating viruses. Meanwhile, there is concern that global warming may be pushing “tropical” pathogens into temperate latitudes and mountain regions. Established scourges such as human monkeypox, dengue, and tuberculosis are staging comebacks, occasionally in drug-resistant strains that target people and places once thought to be exempt. West Nile virus, ensconced in Africa for thousands of years, first appeared in New York in 1999. Within three years it had made its way across the continent, becoming one of North America’s endemic diseases. In November of 2007 a biologist at Grand Canyon National Park in Arizona died of pneumonic plague — part of the Black Death that transformed medieval Europe into a vast, open-air morgue — after performing a necropsy on a mountain lion.

Even without factoring in potential bioterror agents, modern humans have created what Wolfe calls the ideal recipe for microbial emergence. And yet, though the next hemorrhagic fever may be just an intercontinental flight away, the global public-health system remains largely focused on responding to epidemics after they’ve taken off. That’s not rational, says Wolfe, who compares the current approach to that of cardiologists in the 1950s “just waiting for heart attacks to happen, then patching up the survivors with bypass surgery.”

Wolfe grew up in suburban Detroit and studied biology at Stanford and Oxford before heading to Harvard for a Ph.D. in immunology and infectious diseases. In 1998 he was in Borneo, researching orangutans, when the head of the U.S. Army’s AIDS research program tracked him down and invited him to Cameroon to run a study of hunters in remote villages.

When Wolfe arrived here in 2000, researchers hadn’t yet pinpointed this corner of Cameroon as the likely birthplace of HIV/AIDS. In fact Wolfe and his colleagues knew very little about the scope of pathogens in the animal kingdom, or the way they entered human bloodstreams and spread. But he and others had a hunch that hunters like Brice Bidja might have played a big part in the HIV transmission story. Though HIV and AIDS came to the world’s attention in the early 1980s, when a mysterious illness began to cut a deadly swath through gay communities in California and New York, the pandemic’s roots were planted much earlier. New genetic analysis techniques and discoveries of old tissue samples have pushed back the probable date that
HIV’s predecessor jumped from chimpanzees to humans. The most recent insight came late last year, when University of Arizona researcher Michael Worobey analyzed a preserved biopsy of a lymph node taken from an HIV-positive woman in 1960. Worobey’s genetic analysis of the tissue — discovered in a university storage room in the Democratic Republic of the Congo — moved the likely date of the chimp-to-human jump back to about 1900. The findings also reinforce mounting evidence that it took decades — more than half a century — before HIV was able to gain its pandemic-producing momentum.

“This tells us that concerted prevention efforts can prevent local epidemics from gaining a foothold,” says Worobey. “If we had known then what we know now, we could have stopped it.”

Apart from Brice Bidja’s missionary-imported T-shirt, it’s not hard to imagine him as the villager who stepped out of his mud-brick hut one morning a century ago, destined to become the inadvertent first human host of HIV, a disease that would spread to every inhabited region of the world, claiming the lives of more than 25 million people.

The hunter must have counted himself lucky to bring down a chimpanzee, which would provide a feast for a small village. But maybe the wounded chimp bit the hunter as it struggled. Or maybe its infected blood dripped into an open wound on the hunter as the carcass was hauled home. Maybe the hunter’s wife cut her hand while butchering, or one of his children put organ-bloodied fingers into their mouths, as I watched Bidja’s children do. One way or another, blood infected with simian immunodeficiency virus (SIV) came into contact with human blood.

Viruses consist of genetic material — DNA or RNA — that is up to 100 times smaller than bacteria, far too tiny to be seen through anything but an electron microscope. Despite their small size, they carry an incredible amount of genetic machinery. They can respond to stimuli in real time, and they mutate extraordinarily fast. This last trait has made them the most diverse — and by many measures the most successful — class of organisms on the planet.

Unlike other organisms, though, a virus can’t live on its own. A virus needs to get inside a living cell, then commandeer that cell’s resources to reproduce and infect other cells. If two viruses happen to infect the same cell at the same time, they can swap genetic material in a process known as recombination.

Wolfe’s cameroon virus-hunting operation was initially a spare one. For the first couple of years, says Matthew LeBreton, an Australian who is now GVFI’s ecology and rural site coordinator, the team relied on a single vehicle — a run-down Toyota Land Cruiser — to collect samples from 17 villages. When the truck broke down or roads washed out, they traveled by foot, bicycle, or rattletrap public bus, racing to get blood to the lab before its 48-hour spoiling point.

According to LeBreton, Wolfe thrived on the obstacles. “Give him the most difficult, complicated, logistically challenging environment, and Nathan will figure out a way to make it work.”

Says Wolfe, “I’d tell my team that if nothing was going wrong, we weren’t asking hard enough questions.”

Every few months Wolfe would tail his blood samples back to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention laboratory in Atlanta, where he would analyze them himself. In 2004, while looking at a blot of a hunter’s blood work, Wolfe did a double take. The readout showed clear exposure to a simian foamy virus (SFV), so-called because the cells look like soap suds under a microscope.

Like HIV, foamy viruses are retroviruses. Because they inject their own genetic material into the cells they infect, retroviruses are tough foes. Once one gets in, it’s impossible to eradicate.

Wolfe’s discovery of simian foamy viruses in humans cemented his reputation as a viral-epidemiologist wunderkind. The National Institutes of Health awarded him its prestigious Director’s Pioneer Award in 2005. His findings also turned traditional thinking in epidemiology — which had held that transmission of retroviruses from animals to humans is rare — on its head. “The fact that we found SFVs with such a small sample was the shocking thing,” says Wolfe, “because it confirmed that viruses were passing from nonhuman primates to humans on a fairly regular basis.”

Could human SFVs — or the two other new AIDS-related viruses Wolfe found in his Cameroon hunters — become the next HIV? It’s still too early to say. So far none of the SFV-positive hunters have any glaring symptoms, though Wolfe’s team will continue to monitor the hunters’ health because of the possibility that they may become sick after a long incubation period. The team also takes regular blood samples of the hunters’ families and sexual partners, looking for signs that the virus is spreading.

For Wolfe, who no longer bothers to keep an apartment or a permanent academic affiliation, Cameroon is the third touchdown in his latest series of roundthe- world flights. “I spend most of my time in cars and planes with my head bobbing, drooling on my chest,” says Wolfe, who cultivates an air of omniscient nonchalance. Arriving late for our morning departure, wearing a T-shirt and flip-flops, he looks none the worse for his grueling agenda. “I finally figured out that coffee is a shitty drug-delivery system,” he tells me. “It’s not efficient, and the dosage isn’t standardized.” Now he toggles between the sleep aid Ambien and the antisleep drug Provigil. “Jet lag,” he says, “is no longer a problem.”

Then again, Wolfe could well have been high on the news that Google.org had just awarded GVFI a $5.5 million grant — Google’s largest grant ever. The grant would be matched by another $5.5 million from the Skoll Foundation, which backs the work of social entrepreneurs.

Though Google.org program director Frank Rijsberman has described Wolfe as a field-virologist “rock star,” there would be no helicopters or jelly beans on this tour. With a 10-hour drive ahead of us, our caravan of three vehicles motors out of Yaoundé, past the jagged skeletons of unfinished high-rises, some still standing apocalyptically years after construction ceased.

At one village, we top off with diesel sold in two-liter soda bottles, noticing fresh-killed porcupine on the menu du jour. It is tempting, but Wolfe is champing to get to Ngoila, about 30 miles north of the Congolese border in southeast Cameroon, before nightfall. “We can either stop here for lunch, or we can burn,” he said, pausing for a mock-democratic microsecond. “I say let’s burn.”

A nurse draws blood from villagers in southeastern Cameroon, to add to a collection of thousands of samples that will be used by virus hunters to help detect and prevent new pathogens that might jump from tropical animals to hunters and their families. Leading the effort is Nathan Wolfe, Director of the Global Virus Forecasting Initiative (GVFI). (Cameroon village names: Ngoila, Messok, Mesock, Zoulabot)

We cross the Dja River on a rickety cable ferry and burrow deeper into the jungle. Army ants stream across the roads, forming living tunnels that look just like speed bumps.

The radio rhythms have shifted from frenetic Cameroonian bikutsi to the flowing beats of Congolese ndombolo by the time two of our caravan’s trucks roll into Ngoila. The third truck sputters and dies a few miles outside the village. As the drivers locate a mechanic, Wolfe and I trudge off to pay respects to the village chief, the gendarme, and the subdivisional officer. We stop to clown around with some local kids, then walk back toward the GVFI field office, arriving just in time to see the broken-down truck being towed in. As the sun sets we repair to the porch of a small house that serves as GVFI’s headquarters in Ngoila to drink warm beer and feast on rice, chicken, fried plantains, and ndolé (greens with nuts and salty fish or goat and palm oil) slathered with piri-piri, Cameroon’s fiery salsa. For Wolfe, it is a chance to bullshit with his staff — LeBreton, deputy director Ubald Tamoufe, chief operating officer Karen Saylors, and director of laboratory science Brian Pike — about the new, expensive toys that promise to ease logistics and narrow the time between specimen collection and results.

Now, Wolfe’s Cameroon team — 27 public health specialists, wildlife ecologists, laboratory technicians, nurses, and community liaisons — are clearing space in their labs and field sites for new high-tech equipment. Cameroon will be getting nitrogen generators to cool blood at field sites, GPS-trackable motorcycles, and possibly a state-of-the-art phylogenetic sequencer, which would give GVFI the first world-class viral discovery lab in Central Africa.

Early the next afternoon, an elderly woman winces as a syringe pierces her vein, opening a flow of blood from her arm to a collection vial held steadily in a nurse’s meaty hand. Standing in line behind her are several dozen local villagers. Apart from the needle’s prick, no one seems the least bothered by the bloodletting or the waiting. “The success of this approach depends on having a long-term engagement [with the locals],” says study leader Tamoufe. “We’re sharing knowledge, we’re explaining the goals of what we’re doing, we’re being honest.”

After the blood draw, study participants step inside a thatch-roofed pavilion for medical checkups. Then they’re sent away with packets of milk, cans of sardines, condoms, and any prescription medicines they need.

GVFI’s method flies in the face of the “parachute science” approach that has long typified data collection in the Third World. Wolfe thinks he’s got the system down, and he believes that, with the right collaborators, his model can be scaled up and repeated anywhere in the world.

Maybe. But the unpredictable places Wolfe is targeting — Congo, Madagascar, China, Malaysia, Laos — have a way of making a mockery of the noblest goals and the most elegant logistics. Even here, where the team has an eight-year track record of trust and collaboration, nothing can be taken for granted. Today, for instance, Wolfe’s team will attempt something unprecedented, with a high potential for misunderstanding. “This will be tricky,” Tamoufe says. “There are certain cultural sensitivities surrounding masturbation.”

The GVFI team wants to get semen samples and vaginal swabs from at-risk hunters, as well as their primary sexual partners. Here’s why: Every virus needs to use its host cell’s resources to make copies of itself, which then go out to infect other cells. But a virus that infects a cell in a liver or lung — or, indeed, almost any other cell in an animal’s body — can’t carry on to the next generation of its host.

In other words, if you were to contract influenza, or SARS, or Ebola, and then have a baby, you wouldn’t normally pass the virus on to your offspring. But some infectious diseases can be transmitted sexually.

Tamoufe’s team approaches 17 hunters and their sexual partners, asking them to participate in today’s “special study.” The chief adds his own encouragement. “We are hunters here,” he says, “and this is how we help. We know that there are some bad things inside some of the animals we kill. If we can help our friends discover how to protect people, that’s good.”

Both Tamoufe and ecologist LeBreton confide that they have doubts about this working. “But whether or not we get these extra fluids,” LeBreton says, “we’ll get plenty of blood.”

Late that afternoon the team meets back at GVFI’s headquarters in Ngoila, where night drops quickly. Within a matter of minutes the kerosene lamps are lit and the abundant butterflies are replaced by fireflies — one of which finds its way inside the screenedin porch, zigzagging among the team members.

“We Cameroonians say that it’s a lucky thing to have fireflies in your house,” says Tamoufe.

Indeed, it has been a good day. Of the people approached, three men and four women provided semen samples and vaginal swabs — a pretty good start, all agree. That’s in addition to the 100 blood samples collected.

Working like this, one village at a time, Wolfe has quickly accumulated one of the most comprehensive blood collections on Earth, some 25,000 human and 16,000 animal samples that are available to researchers around the globe.

“I can guarantee that these repositories of samples will be treasure troves of information for the future,” says Michael Worobey, of the University of Arizona.

Even though Wolfe is fundamentally a collector — of blood and exotic microbes and, to a lesser extent, West African art — he’s a minimalist
in his personal life.

“Almost everything I own is in a storage locker in Los Angeles,” he says. When Wolfe was on the faculty at UCLA, he had an apartment in Venice Beach. “I would swim and do yoga and ride around on my Vespa. I was also into rare orchids, but I wasn’t there enough, so they died.’’

He tells me he lives for moments like these, drinking warm beer with his team, listening to the sounds of the jungle as they build into a riotous chorus of grunts and caws and chuckles.

But Wolfe, who is single, says that as he nears the age of 40 the urge to drop anchor is getting stronger. “I’m actually thinking that things will begin to calm down in a few months,” he says. “Of course, I’ve been saying this for the last 10 years.”

Pike suggests we go outside to toast the almost-full moon. As we do, someone fires up a generator and a radio, sending the warm, liquid guitar lines of Congolese soukous skipping across the courtyard.

“We vertebrates are a pimple on the ass of life on this planet,” Wolfe says, to no one in particular. “But we exist at a moment in history when we have the tools to understand things in a deep way, things that we didn’t know existed a few years ago.

“What’s still out there?” Wolfe asks, looking up at the moon. “We just don’t know. And that’s what’s fun.”

Every weekday morning at 9 am Central European time, the Epidemic and Pandemic Alert and Response team meets in the Strategic Health Operations Centre, known as the “SHOC room,” at the World Health Organization’s headquarters in Geneva, Switzerland.

After discussing incoming reports, members fan out to verify outbreaks through WHO country offices and local governments. In the spring of 2003, WHO received a report of a flulike outbreak in southern China — a mutant, fast-spreading virus that would come to be named severe acute respiratory syndrome, or SARS. But by that time, a man from Guangdong province — famous for its “wet markets” selling wild animals for food — had traveled to a hotel in Hong Kong.

That single-night stay in room 911 prompted a SARS “super spreader” event that led to at least 16 SARS cases among hotel visitors. But it didn’t stop there. Those travelers departed to Europe, North America, and elsewhere in Asia, spreading the virus to more than 8,000 people in 32 countries.

The SARS outbreak killed more than 700, but it could have been far worse. A massive international containment effort, led by the WHO, averted a doomsday scenario and quickly controlled the outbreak. What worries people like Dr. Michael Ryan, coordinator of the WHO’s Global Outbreak Alert and Response Network, is that SARS may have been just a rehearsal for something worse. “We winged it with SARS,” says Ryan, “and we got away with it, because the core countries had the capacity to deal with it. But if SARS had happened in rural Africa we’d still be dealing with it. And I think it’s inevitable that we’ll be hit with something new that will be harder to put back in its box.”

Despite the high stakes, the world’s outbreak- response agencies are perennially underfunded and underequipped. For instance, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s pandemic preparations budget in 2008 was just $158 million — a fraction of the nearly $200 billion budgeted for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan last year.

“We don’t have any problem investing money in physical security issues,” Ryan says. “But epidemics of infectious disease have killed a lot more people than wars ever have.” (The “Spanish flu” — which may have actually originated in Kansas — claimed around 40 million lives in 1918–’19, nearly twice the number killed in World War I.)

For its part, WHO is hamstrung by budget shortfalls and international protocols that can slow its response. Until recently, for instance, countries were required to report only three infectious diseases (cholera, plague, and yellow fever), and the WHO couldn’t legally consider outbreak reports from nongovernmental sources. As a result of SARS (which was given a head start by the Chinese government’s hamhanded response), the agency can now use reports from informal sources. But in places where information doesn’t flow freely (think Myanmar, or North Korea), a localized outbreak could potentially smolder until it sparks an uncontainable pandemic.

“Once viruses get going,” says Dr. David L. Heymann, the WHO’s assistant director-general for health security and environment, “they don’t have much regard for borders or politics.”

Wolfe’s viral surveillance project, he says, will help the WHO and other health agencies finetune computer models that can forecast where the next diseases will emerge and then contain them through proactive approaches such as blood-supply testing, education, economic development, and environmental protection.

But some public-health experts believe it ultimately makes more sense to give communities and healthcare providers the tools to bypass international agencies and governments, using information and technology to deal with local threats before they become global crises. To that end, last year Google.org unveiled its Predict and Prevent Initiative. The program aims to expand disease surveillance and build grassroots networks to push detection and response “two steps to the left” of the epidemic curve, according to Dr. Larry Brilliant, the iconoclastic doctor and internet entrepreneur whom Google’s founders brought in to run their philanthropy arm.

“We’ll always need the international agencies,” says Predict and Prevent director Mark Smolinski. “But I hope that within the next 10 years, a farmer in Vietnam will be able to report a sneezing chicken or a sick child without worrying about what system is responding on the other end of the line.” Eric Rasmussen, who heads the disease- and disaster-prevention lab InSTEDD (which is partially funded by Google), says it doesn’t matter how many good policies and procedures are in place “if communications hurdles make it impossible to get information to the people with the skills to do something about it.”

InSTEDD and its technology partners are working on everything from inflatable satellite dishes that can be transported in backpacks to cell phone–based systems that could broadcast warnings of an imminent calamity, such as a tsunami.

Since most sick people don’t go to a doctor as a first step, the Predict and Prevent team is looking at unconventional data sources for disease outbreak detection. These include rumor surveillance by health workers and digital detection (sometimes called “scrubbing’’) for news articles or blogs suggesting a possible outbreak.

On our final morning in the field, project leader Joseph Le Doux Diffo convenes a “healthy hunter” meeting in Zoulabot. Bush meat (“We prefer to say ‘wild game,’ ” Wolfe corrects me) is a thorny issue in Central Africa, due to the growing number of commercial hunters.

If current hunting levels persist, many species — especially primates such as gorillas and chimpanzees — may go extinct in the wild within a few decades. Wary of occasional crackdowns, villagers are often suspicious of outsiders who talk about hunting.

“We are not telling you not to eat hunted meat, but bad diseases are out there now,” Diffo tells the crowd of about 100 people, speaking mostly in French. “So please do it carefully.”

“There are ethical subtleties here,” says LeBreton, watching the presentation. “On one hand, the levels of hunting are not sustainable, so they are contributing to a major ecological catastrophe that will eventually impact their own food security. On the other hand, every human on Earth will choose to feed their child over saving an endangered piece of meat.”

GVFI’s approach is a combination of safehunting instruction and conservation education. Diffo encourages the hunters to focus on abundant animals, such as rodents; he reminds them that certain species are illegal to hunt; then he demonstrates how to wrap carcasses in either plastic or large palm fronds before carting them home. And, since Ebola has been confirmed across the border in Congo, he advises the hunters to walk away from dead animals in the forest.

“If we want people to change their activities, then we will have to pony up the money and create alternatives,” says Wolfe. “And certainly we should. Because if we feel responsible enough to stop pandemics and save endangered species, then we also have the responsibility to deal with the inequalities that reinforce these things.” After all, he continues, “they’re doing something completely rational. Wild game hunting may be high-risk, but it’s not higher-risk than not eating.”

Late that afternoon we arrive at the GVFI house in Ngoila just as the caretaker is pouring kerosene over a line of termites heading across the courtyard and up the house’s wall, determined to make a meal out of the rafters.

Wolfe sits in a plastic chair, his clothing stained earth-red, debating with his team whether viruses could be more important to the evolution of animals than mutation or genetic recombination, as some researchers have theorized.

“We live on a planet that is dominated by microbial life,” Wolfe says. “I don’t think anyone would debate that. But are viruses the primary driver of evolution? I’m not convinced.”

A case of beer arrives just as dark gray clouds begin to gather overhead, their bottom edges highlighted by the orange and pink rays of the recently departed sun. When the storm lets loose we retreat to the porch, watching the rain come down in crazy, curving sheets.

“It’s mind-boggling,” Wolfe says. “A century ago we didn’t know viruses existed, and now we’re starting to understand that they’re the prevailing life form on Earth. We have to rethink just about everything we know about how this planet works.”

National Geographic: John McAfee’s Flying Circus Wants You!

John McAfee stands in the New Mexican playa in front of his trike ultralight, during a Sky Gypsies aerotrekking camping expedition. (Tom Clynes) John McAfee stands in the New Mexican playa in front of his trike ultralight, during a Sky Gypsies aerotrekking camping expedition. Click photo above for slide show.

Big ideas come easy to John McAfee. First he pioneered antivirus software, then instant messaging. Now the mercurial magnate thinks he’s on to something truly extraordinary: personal Icarus machines.

“And now, I’m going to count from one to five,” John McAfee says, his baritone dharma-salesman voice resonating through the small theater filled with meditating pilots. “And when I get to five, go ahead and open your eyes. Ready?”

One…

I’ve always considered myself an überskeptic, immune to the whole range of hypnotic experience. But I’ll be damned if John McAfee doesn’t have me believing one morning in early January that I can fly like a bird.

The day after my arrival at McAfee’s Sky Gypsies compound in the sparse and spectacular border country of southwestern New Mexico, I’m on the back of an open-cockpit, winged tricycle, swooping through the air above the Peloncillo Mountains. Up front, in the birdbrain position, McAfee pulls the control bar toward his right hip and sends us diving into Skeleton Canyon.

“This is what Icarus dreamed of,” McAfee yells, as we pirouette around a granite spire, then level off five feet above the floor of the Animas Valley, skimming over ocotillos and longhorn cattle at 65 miles an hour. McAfee stomps the throttle and aims for the crown of a small butte, then flicks the bar forward to spirit us over the top.

As we turn eastward in a broad, climbing arc, I glance over my shoulder and catch a glimpse of nine other airborne craft. They fly behind us in fast-and-loose formation, silhouetted against a backdrop of looming mountains. McAfee leads the squadron across a parched plain toward a sprawling, dry lakebed, and eases us down until the rear tires make tentative contact with the playa. Then, confident that the surface is solid, he cuts the throttle and plants the trike firmly on the ground. One by one, the others drop out of the sky and come to rest in a semicircle.

McAfee takes off his helmet and reaches into his saddlebag for a self-heating can of coffee as three women in red-and-black jumpsuits hop from their machines and run toward each other with hugs and hoots. The hugs become tackles, and the tackles devolve into a giddy wrestling match in the dust.

Opening the coffee, McAfee slices his finger deeply on the pull tab. Someone runs for a bandage as McAfee holds the wound together with his uninjured hand, squinting as he takes in a panorama of Mad Max flying machines, dust-kicking wrestlers, and jagged mountains pinned under a cerulean sky. As the dripping blood turns the dust at McAfee’s feet into dark mud, he glances at his watch and a broad smile creeps across his face. It’s high noon in the middle of nowhere, and John McAfee’s flying circus has arrived.

It’s hard to imagine another sexagenarian multimillionaire having as much fun as McAfee, the lead evangelist of the new adventure sport he has dubbed aerotrekking. According to McAfee, people can indeed fly like birds, and they don’t need full pilots’ licenses or constrictive, gas-guzzling tin cans to do it. What they do need are wide open spaces, a bit of training, and a new class of flying machines with kite wings, motor-driven rear propellers, and handlebars for steering. Variously called weight-shift ultralights, personal air vehicles (PAVs), or simply trikes, the machines have a range of 300 miles or about five hours in the air.

McAfee’s backcountry version of ultralight flying may or may not catch on, but if it does, it wouldn’t be the first time the world has found itself swept up in one of his improbable schemes…

Read the rest of the story at National Geographic

National Geographic: Outlaw’s Guide to Iceland

It’s Europe’s last great wilderness, a land of geysers, glaciers, fjords and farmer-poets. A land where your best guide is a thieving, murdering outlaw who’s been dead for a thousand years.

 (Tom Clynes)

Puffin hunting atop Drangey Island. Click photo for slide show.

“This boy Grettir—well, he was trouble from the very beginning.”

High atop Drangey Island, Jón Eiriksson stands at the nub of a jagged rectangle of stones, looking out at the fjord and the mainland beyond. Above him, sea birds wheel in the salt wind over Drangey, a green-capped spike of rock thrust down, like an axe head, into a tongue of the North Sea. Jón pulls off his cap and runs his fingers through a tussock of white hair, then he sits down on a half-buried stone.

“Grettir is our neighbor, you know,” Jón says. “He was born on a farm near Midfjord, a place called Bjarg. That means ‘stone’ in Icelandic. When he was young, he was a handsome boy, with red hair and a broad face. But very rough and mischievous. He made clever poems, but they were mostly scornful. His father and nearly everyone believed that he would amount to nothing.”

Jón talks in the familiar terms one might use to describe a ne’er-do-well kid who squeals his tires through the subdivision. But at the age of 72, Jón isn’t quite old enough to have known his juvenile-delinquent neighbor.

Grettir was born a thousand years ago.

I had arrived in Iceland three weeks earlier with photographer Michael Moore, determined to follow the path of Grettir Asmundarson—the warrior, poet, ghostbuster, and outdoorsman popularly known hereabouts as Grettir the Strong. This medieval Jesse James outwitted his pursuers for nearly 20 years, roaming and wreaking havoc across the harshest and most remote corners of 11th-century Iceland. As any Icelander will attest, and as Jón tells us, “Grettir was not only the strongest man who ever lived in Iceland, but also the greatest outlaw.”

Read more about the story at National Geographic

The World’s Toughest Trucker

By: Tom Clynes

Warm beer won’t make you any friends up here, mate. Garry White’s torture trek fuels the fridge.

Author’s note: I stumbled onto this fun story on my first visit to Oz. It’s still one of my favorite pieces, and I often feature it in my keynote talks


Hidden under the rainforest canopy at the top of Australia’s Cape York Peninsula, Pajinka Wilderness Lodge is a tropical retreat for wildlife lovers, bird watchers and fishermen. The lodge lies just short of the northernmost point in Australia, at the tip of a slender green finger that stretches up from the wide brown continent toward New Guinea. Locals call this spot simply The Top.

After a day in the sun deep-sea fishing with Pajinka’s manager, Alan Geary, a few guests cooled off at the lodge’s outdoor bar. Someone brought over a round of XXXX (Queensland’s home-brewed beer, pronounced “Four-X”) and asked Alan a question of essential interest:

In a place where the temperature rarely dips below 90 degrees, a place far too remote for electrical lines, how is it that the beer at Pajinka is always cold?

Alan answered with a tropical syllogism. For good conversation, he said, you need cold beer. To get cold beer, you need electricity. To get electricity, you need fuel for the generator. To get fuel to The Top…you need Garry White.

Three times a year, Alan told us, “this bloke Garry” pulls his full-size tractor-trailer rig out of Cairns and heads up the peninsula to the fuel depot at Weipa. There, he fills the tanker with diesel for the cattle stations and aboriginal settlements in the distant north, and for Pajinka. The 1,500-mile round trip—not a single foot of it on paved roads—takes him through the continent’s most inaccessible wilderness. He has to plow through jungle rivers, chain-saw through downed trees and shovel his way out of truck-gobbling mud holes. Every time he stops to change a flat tire or replace an axle, he’s bait for leeches, wild boars, taipans and giant crocs.

“It’s a well-known fact,” said Alan, “that he is the world’s toughest trucker.”

It’s also a well-known fact that Alan is an avid fisherman, which means that all his stories are suspect. I would need to confirm every syllable.
I couldn’t judge the roads, because, like most of Pajinka’s guests, I had flown in via bush plane. So I contacted the editor of an Australian trucking magazine, who told me that Cape York has “the toughest tracks on the continent.”
I called Trinity Petroleum, which supplies fuel out of Cairns, and asked the owner if anyone else brings big tankers up to The Top. “Well, other drivers have gotten trucks in there,” he said. “But aside from Garry, no one else has managed to get ‘em back out.”
I talked to ranchers around the peninsula, who resolutely confirmed their dependence on Garry White. The owner of the old telegraph station at Wenlock River said that “without him we couldn’t live up here, mate, it’s that simple. Also, we’d have to drink our beer warm.”

Garry White, "the world's toughest trucker," delivers diesel fuel to the cattle stations, aboriginal communities and remote settlements of the Cape York Peninsula in far north Queensland, Australia. Writer and photographer Tom Clynes rode along on his 2,400 km round trip through the continent’s most inaccessible wilderness.

“SO YOU WANT TO RIDE UP TO THE TOP, EH?”

I had expected a seven-foot-tall hybrid of Mad Max and Crocodile Dundee. But the guy who comes to the door looks a lot like…my dad. He’s a burly 5’ 9”, with a standard-issue trucker’s belly and a brushy cop mustache that nearly hides two missing front teeth. With blotchy English skin and a perpetual squint, he looks altogether unsuited for the tropics.

It’s late October, and Garry says he’s running dangerouly late for his last far-north run, before “The Dry” gives over to “The Wet,” the northern Australian monsoon season. When The Wet arrives—which could be any day now—it will deliver more rain in a week than Seattle gets in a year. The big storms will push the rivers up as much as 20 feet a day, devouring the land. Anything that can’t fly or float out will have to stay put…for the next four months.

Garry and his wife, Kathy, live in a concrete-floor house outside Mareeba, a scruffy town in the tablelands above Cairns. Kathy fires up some dinner for us, and talks about the trials of being a “truckie’s wife.” She misses Garry when he’s gone, which can be up to a month at a time. Sometimes she’ll ride with him on the easier trips; she likes to sit beside him and “watch his tummy bounce up and down like a lump of jelly.”

As we eat, a little horse clomps through the open door and into the living room. It’s a miniature pony, and there are a few more outside, sharing the paddock with several full-size horses and a few dogs. One of the mutts is a slobbering bull terrier named Diesel.

The next morning, Garry and I head to Mareeba’s supermarket, to pack some “tucker” into the truck’s small fringe. He steers the shopping cart directly toward the meat counter, and picks out some bacon for breakfast. Then some pork sausage for lunch. “We’ll get some sliced ham for sangers (sandwiches),” he says, “and we’ll need something for tea tomorrow.” He suddenly decides to cut me in on the decision-making process: “D’ya like pork cutlets?”

Since we’ve covered most of the pig, I propose some vegetables. Garry gives me a puzzled look.

“Veggies? Like—what?” he asks.

“Like, say, cucumbers.”

“Nah,” he says. “They return on me.” I decide that I can live without a definition of this digestive condition, and we compromise on a couple of fat T-bone steaks.

Garry White, "the world's toughest trucker," delivers diesel fuel to the cattle stations, aboriginal communities and remote settlements of the Cape York Peninsula in far north Queensland, Australia. Writer and photographer Tom Clynes rode along on his 2,400 km round trip through the continent’s most inaccessible wilderness.

FOR THE FIRST LEG OF THE TRIP, we’ll head up the peninsula as a “road train,” with tandem trailers connected by a dolly called a dog trailer. At Weipa, we’ll unhook the rear tanker and negotiate the narrow tracks to the far north with a single trailer. Over the course of the trip, we’ll barrel through coastal mountains, scrub forests, heaths, rolling hills, swamps, deserts, jungle—some of the wildest terrain on the continent.

Garry’s rig stretches 140 feet back from the headlights. Kenworths don’t come off the line as ORV’s, but this one has been fitted out for serious off-road extremes. It has a 470-horsepower turbocharged Detroit Diesel, hooked up to a Spicer gearbox with 18 forward speeds and four reverse. The prime mover rides on Rockwell axles and a Hendrickson air suspension. The rig’s 44 wheels are shod with Dunlop rubber.

“It takes a flogging,” Garry says, proudly.

Garry has named the tractor Pegasus and had a winged horse painted on the doors. The cab interior is Spartan brown vinyl, embellished only by a set of triple-dueling evergreen air fresheners hanging from the sleeping compartment ceiling, just behind the seats. A rock screen protects the windshield, and a huge “bull bar” is the first line of defense against cattle and boomers—big kangaroos.

The pavement ends and the outback begins about two miles from Garry’s house. Torqueing up and down the mountain ranges that make up the northern stretch of the Great Dividing Range—the Sallies Range, the Bamboo Range, the Sussex Range—we roll past teams of jackaroos (Aussie cowboys) on horseback, driving herds between giant termite mounds that bulge like teeth out of the rust-red earth. The sky opens up into a seamless, heavy blue.

The ranches, called stations, are too vast to fence, and animals roam freely across the road. Garry seems to know which bulls will interrupt a graze to bolt suddenly across our path. He tells me that he’s “conked a few,” and that he used to carry a gun under the seat, so he could dispatch of anything he hit quickly and humanely. But recently, a law was passed forbidding guns in Australian vehicles.

“Last brumby (wild horse) I hit, I had to finish ‘im off with a piece of pipe.” There’s melancholy in his voice. “I didn’t like that.”

We drag a huge dust cloud behind us as we dip through gullies and wend around limestone escarpments. A sign announces Split Rock Gallery, coming up on the left. The hills and rocky outcrops around the town of Laura contain the world’s densest concentration of prehistoric rock paintings—thousands of open-air “galleries” with paintings up to 40,000 years old. In some spots, groups of stick-men, drawn in vivid ochre and faded white, chase catfish and platypus. In other spots, spirit-women with flaming heads cavort with emus and giant frogs. I ask Garry if he knows about the Quinkans, leprechaun-like figures who are said to sneak up on sleeping humans to steal their kidney fat.

“What a load of bloody nonsense.”

Garry has rolled by Split Rock Gallery more than 100 times. But he says he’s never had time to pull over and check out “the blackfellows’ art.”

Garry White, "the world's toughest trucker," delivers diesel fuel to the cattle stations, aboriginal communities and remote settlements of the Cape York Peninsula in far north Queensland, Australia. Writer and photographer Tom Clynes rode along on his 2,400 km round trip through the continent’s most inaccessible wilderness.

AROUND MIDNIGHT, GARRY PULLS the rig under a silver ghost gum tree and shuts down the engine. In the warm wind, the land seems to exhale magic. Garry pulls a camp stove and a dusty pan from the spare-parts cubbyhole, and we fry up some pork. Then he puts on the billy—a camp kettle that looks like a paint can—and makes some coffee.

We get to talking. He tells me that his grandparents came from England and settled near Cairns. Garry was raised on farms, and he likes to be around animals. He got into trucking “back when the money was good,” and now, with his hazardous-cargo rating and years of experience, he can still “make a fair quid.” But it’s rough on the marriage, and rough on the back.

When Garry retires into the truck’s sleeper I grab my swag—the Aussie bedroll, a pad and sheet wrapped in thick canvas—and climb up to the tanker’s flat top. In the few minutes before I drift off, I see a dozen comets shooting in and out of the unfamiliar constellations.

The Aborigines, who have wandered these lands for more than 50,000 years, believe that sky heroes rode shooting stars down to earth during the Dreamtime, and carved the outback’s strangely beautiful landscapes. I look for Garry’s sky hero, Pegasus, in the canopy of light above me. But I can’t find the constellation, and I wonder if the old European hero is even visible in these southern skies.

Garry White, "the world's toughest trucker," delivers diesel fuel to the cattle stations, aboriginal communities and remote settlements of the Cape York Peninsula in far north Queensland, Australia. Writer and photographer Tom Clynes rode along on his 2,400 km round trip through the continent’s most inaccessible wilderness.

AT DAWN, I WAKE TO THE SOUND OF A GONG being struck next to my ear drum. Actually, it’s a rock hitting the fuel cap I’m using for a pillow. I sit up and look over the side of the tanker. There’s Garry, with a fistful of stones, grinning up at me.

“Wakey wakey, hands off snakey!”

He tells me to go have a “dingo’s breakfast”—a piss and a look around—as he inspects the truck. Once the air pressure builds, we hop in and press on into the interior, where the vibrant greens of the coast give way to dull olive and beige hues. The Dry shows no sign of abating. In fact, the landscape seems permanently blighted. Wildfires have scorched the melaleuca tree trunks, and carpeted the forest floor with black ash. Some are still burning. For hours, there’s no sign of human life. Then the Archer River Roadhouse comes into view.

“Go in for a feed?”

When we walk in, it’s clear that Garry White is a celebrity in these parts. Everyone drops what they’re doing to find out what “Whitey” is up to. The cook, a cheerful, enthusiastic woman known as “Feral Cheryl,” fires up an English-style breakfast of greasy eggs and heaps of undercooked bacon, and talk eventually gets around to where we’re heading. “The Top,” Garry says, raising eyebrows all around. Glen, who manages the roadhouse, speaks up.

“You’re takin’ a big risk goin’ up this late, aren’t you Garry? One big storm, and you’ll be up there for the duration of The Wet.”

Garry admits that he’s procrastinated “about three weeks too long.” Cheryl asks him about the longest he’s been stranded in the bush. There was the time he was “bogged in tight” for five days near the Gulf of Carpentaria. He had to dig a ditch to drain the track, then cut down trees and lash them together, finally driving out over his makeshift wooden road.

“Ran low on tucker, so I made some crab traps and put ‘em out in a billabong, not even thinkin’ about the crocs. I made the mistake of going back there the same time three days in a row, wadin’ right out into the tea. On the last day I had the boots off and was ready to go in when I got a feeling. Threw some rocks out and sure enough, a big saltie was out by the trap, waiting ’round for me. They’re smart. They’ll watch their prey for a few days; they’ll learn your habits.”

On the way out, Garry decides to call home. When he climbs back into the truck, he’s perturbed. He tells me that Kathy “went crocadelic” on him for spending too much time and money in the pub-tent the other night, “among other offenses.” He sighs. “It’s getting to the point where a bloke can’t even have a reasonable piss-up with the mates, without getting an earbashing.”

The road, horrendously cut up after eight months of dry-season traffic, narrows into a track of sand and bare rock. It’s a bone-jarring, ear-rattling ride. An hour out of Archer River, the air brakes on the rear trailer lock up. Garry tugs on this, replaces that, and finally finds the culprit, a valve fitting with its threads vibrated bare. There’s no spare, but Garry rummages around in his “mobile workshop,” pulling out boxes of tools and parts until he finds a couple of other fittings to cobble together, and we’re on our way again.

A hot wind has come up, driving the red dust into the air. The powder collects on the sunglasses, around the lips, and in the moist corners of the eyes. I can taste the land’s thirst in each metallic, stale breath. Barreling into a dust-stormed gully, we enter a section of exposed rocks too fast, and we’re both slammed against the ceiling.

“Fucking horse!”

Garry grapples with the bucking Kenworth, plowing the rig through a sand berm at the bottom of the creek bed and into a motocrosser’s nightmare of boulders and hip-deep ruts. As the gully bottoms out there’s a nauseating crunch behind us, the sound of metal being torn apart. Fighting to maintain momentum, Garry stomps the throttle, downshifting twice a second as we bore into the soft sand. With each lower gear the engine roars an agonizing note, and the Dunlops burrow deeper. Overcome by grit and gravity, we bog to a stop.

As the dust rises around us, Garry grabs his window crank to seal off the cab. The crank falls off in his hand.

“Fuuuuuuuckkk! Bloody fucking mongrel roads.”

Garry White, "the world's toughest trucker," delivers diesel fuel to the cattle stations, aboriginal communities and remote settlements of the Cape York Peninsula in far north Queensland, Australia. Writer and photographer Tom Clynes rode along on his 2,400 km round trip through the continent’s most inaccessible wilderness.

OVER BREAKFAST AT ARCHER RIVER, I had asked Garry if he enjoys his job, overall.

At the time, with his buddies around him and a hot meal in front of him, his response had been balanced: “I suppose when the roads are good it’s all right. But sometimes—these roads are mad.”

Since then, Garry’s mood has darkened. After we dig out of the gully, the top leaf spring on the tractor’s left front wheel—a two-inch-thick, $800 piece of hardened steel—shears. The next day, the bolts holding the intercooler to the frame snap apart. At the Aurakun aboriginal settlement an impatient road-crew worker tries to squeeze past the truck with his pickup, smashing two tail lights. The road surface has gone from sand to a hard red soil with deep corrugations that deliver a kidney punch each time one of the 44 wheels slams into one. The vibration is hellish; for the past three hours we haven’t been able to get higher than second gear—that’s second out of 18.

Garry pops a couple of Panadols for his back and squints at the clouds coming down from New Guinea. Then he looks over at me.

“You’d have to be mad to enjoy this.”

If he intends any irony, I can’t hear it over the jack-hammer sound of the stutter bumps beating the youth out of his Kenworth. I ask him why he keeps making the run.

“To tell you the truth, I’ve been thinking about chucking it in. This may be my last run up here. They’ll all be on their own then, as far as getting fuel up here.”

I ask him if he’s ever considered hiring a helper, an apprentice mechanic to ride shotgun and provide an extra pair of hands.

“I’d never be able to find anyone who wouldn’t make a dog’s breakfast out of everything he touches.”

Garry White, "the world's toughest trucker," delivers diesel fuel to the cattle stations, aboriginal communities and remote settlements of the Cape York Peninsula in far north Queensland, Australia. Writer and photographer Tom Clynes rode along on his 2,400 km round trip through the continent’s most inaccessible wilderness.

EACH TIME WE PULL TO A STOP, Garry jumps down into the dust like the first astronaut on a new planet, not sure what he’ll find when he hits the ground. By the time we’ve finished unloading at the aboriginal settlement at Mapoon, a fuel discharge valve has stripped bare, and a fitting has torn from the air-system expansion tank. The fuel tankers are literally coming apart at the seams—some of the welds have cracked, and fuel is trickling out.

Garry refuses any assistance with the repairs, and the farther north we go, the crabbier he gets.

There’s smoke and charred land everywhere, and lots of small blazes still kindling in the bush. When a scrap of smoldering debris blows across our path, I look back at the fuel leaking from the cracked tanker.

“Don’t splatter your bladder, mate.”

Diesel isn’t nearly as volatile as gasoline, Garry tells me. I’m not completely reassured, but at this point the thought of exploding in a spectacular fireball seems preferable to a slow death by corrugations. But in a few minutes, I see Garry nervously eyeing his rear-view mirror. Suddenly, he yells “fuel!” and hits the kill switch. Chaos erupts. The crossover line connecting the tractor’s tanks has torn loose, and fuel is gushing out by the barrel. We both fly into action, crawling under the prime mover into the diesel juice and dust that’s quickly turning to mud, twisting valves shut under each of the four drive tanks.

When the flow is stanched, we climb out from under opposite sides of the truck. Through the gap between the tractor and the trailer, I see Garry looking at his watch with a stunned expression. Diesel fuel and dirt cover him like brown batter on a piece of fish. I let out an involuntary chortle, and when Garry looks up from his watch, he’s wearing a dazed smile.

“Fuck me wrong,” he says. “It’s my birthday.”

Garry White, "the world's toughest trucker," delivers diesel fuel to the cattle stations, aboriginal communities and remote settlements of the Cape York Peninsula in far north Queensland, Australia. Writer and photographer Tom Clynes rode along on his 2,400 km round trip through the continent’s most inaccessible wilderness.

WE LIMP INTO WEIPA and head to the fuel depot to reload. As Garry raps the side of the tanker with his knuckles to judge the fuel levels, the depot manager, Vince, comes out of the office. Vince, in his early forties, has the easygoing manner of someone who grew up in cooler climes, then connected with his true natural rhythm in the tropics. He’s one of Garry’s best friends up here, and he listens sympathetically as Garry details the last three days, listing the repairs he’ll need to make before we can continue to The Top. Vince offers to help work on the truck, but Garry waves him off.

I mention to Vince that it’s Garry’s birthday.

“Fair dinkum?”

That’s Aussie for “no shit?” Vince immediately gets on the phone to round up some people for a celebration. He tells Garry that he’ll chain the gates if he tries to leave before we have a night out. Vince’s wife, Leann, will be joining us, and I ask Vince if she’ll be bringing along any single girlfriends. He looks dumbfounded.

“Uh, Sheilas are a bit of a problem up here, mate. They’re scarce as rocking-horse shit.”

We start at the Stubbie Hut, a ruddy, open-air fishermen’s pub on the commercial wharf. Then we move to another place for dinner and more drinks. I tell Vince about my conversation with Garry, about how he told me that he’s thinking about calling it quits.

Vince laughs out loud. “He’s been saying that for years, he has! He whinges (complains) non-stop, but the thing is, he loves this stuff. The reason nobody else brings fuel up to The Top is because he won’t let anyone else have the run.”

I’m starting to see how Garry’s world works.

The pain is part of the package—just as it was for the heroes of the “outlaw trucker” movies of the American seventies. In those fabulously clumsy epics, the trucker-hero, like Jesus, must suffer. In Convoy, Kris Kristofferson gets his eye poked out. In High-Ballin’, Peter Fonda gets his ass kicked with tire irons.In The Great Smokey Roadblock, Henry Fonda keels over after a heroic battle with the cops.

But if you’re a Hollywood trucker, at least you have good roads. And you can share the burden with your buddies. You get on the CB, call up a convoy and crash the roadblock, sayin’ “Let them truckers roll, ten-four!” But if you’re Garry White, swaggin’ across the torture tracks of Cape York, you’re on your own. You can’t have a helper—of course you can’t—because you’re the one who helps. You handle everything the world throws at you. You deliver the blood to your flock, you light up their tropical nights. You cool their beer.

And if you happen to love it, you sure as hell don’t let them know.

Garry White, "the world's toughest trucker," delivers diesel fuel to the cattle stations, aboriginal communities and remote settlements of the Cape York Peninsula in far north Queensland, Australia. Writer and photographer Tom Clynes rode along on his 2,400 km round trip through the continent’s most inaccessible wilderness.

THE JARDINE IS THE LARGEST RIVER ON THE PENINSULA, the only one that can’t be forded by a vehicle during The Dry. A small cable ferry shuttles vehicles back and forth, but when we pull up the ferry is on the other side of the river and the last four-wheel drive is rolling up the bank, joining a couple of other vehicles making tracks into the rain forest.

“That’s Ben‘s truck,” Garry says, reaching for the horn. But Ben, the ferry operator, doesn’t look back as he turns the corner and heads out of site. And we’re stuck here. For 10 hours.

A Toyota Land Cruiser pulls up, filled with Torres Strait Islanders, people of Melanesian descent who inhabit the islands and part of the mainland at The Top. We strike up a conversation with one of the guys.

Garry says he knows where Ben hides the key to the ferry, and he knows how to get the boat across the river. “But the only way to get over there is to swim.”

He looks at me. I look at the Islander. He looks at Garry. They both look at me. I take a step back, reflexively.

“Y’ know,” the Islander says, “I used swim across here every now and again. But not since that bloke got taken.”

The “bloke” was in our situation few months ago, and he decided to go for it. Apparently, he made it about a third of the way across before his companions saw an 18-foot log drifting toward him. It was drifting…upstream. The shore-side screams caught his attention, but fate was already in gear; his buddies might well have spared him his final few seconds of terror.

So we fire up some steak and onions and gaze over at the opposite bank, where our ride will sit for the next 13 hours, guarded by a prehistoric underwater anti-theft device.

That night, thick clouds blot out the stars, and the monsoon rains come in hard just before dawn. There’s no doubt that The Wet is on its way, and that we’re running out of time.

In the morning, after Ben arrives and brings the ferry over, Garry noses the truck down the riverbank. But when the Kenworth’s front wheels transfer their weight to the boat, the shore-bound end sinks under the load, sending the other end rearing out of the water spectacularly, nearly throwing Ben’s helper overboard. Up-ended, the ferry seems poised to shoot out of the water and into the air like a toy boat out of a bathtub. But Garry stays steady on the throttle, and when the drive wheels connect with the ferry, they claw it back down under the truck. He balances the truck on top of the teetering flat-top and jumps out. Ben runs over, wild-eyed.

“Bugger me dead, Garry, what’s vehicle weight on this bastard?”

“About 40 tons.”

“Y’ know, the capacity’s only 28.” Garry looks away like a guilty schoolboy, and does a little whistle through his missing front teeth.

“Well, I guess she’s on now,” Ben says, and yells at his helper to fire up the cable motor. In no time, the truck’s on the opposite bank, and we roar off into the jungle. Safely away, Garry looks over at me.

“I rounded down,” he says.

Garry White, "the world's toughest trucker," delivers diesel fuel to the cattle stations, aboriginal communities and remote settlements of the Cape York Peninsula in far north Queensland, Australia. Writer and photographer Tom Clynes rode along on his 2,400 km round trip through the continent’s most inaccessible wilderness.

NORTH OF THE RIVER, the road narrows and snakes into a series of tight turns, and the soil changes from hard red dirt to white, boggy sand. The bumps stretch out and yield into soft, forgiving moguls. Garry works up through the gears, wrestling the beast through the hairpins, finessing torque and momentum into distance.

The track narrows further as jungle pulls in on both sides. We stop to remove the antennas, before they’re torn off, and Garry eases the big truck into the trees. Branches elbow out, grabbing at the mirrors. Vines reach down, clawing at the windshield. Garry negotiates a series of turns so tight that the bull bar digs into the corners, carving away at the berms.

Finally, we pull into Pajinka’s gates and roll up to the generator tank. We decide to go up front before we unload the fuel, to say hello and see who’s around, maybe rustle up some tucker. Peter, the cook, brings over a round of stubbies and tells us to help ourselves to whatever’s in the fridge.

Three guests come in from fishing and join us in the shade at the bar. They’re sweaty and sunburnt, and when they get their beers each of them drains half the bottle in a long, appreciative guzzle. We get to talking about an American actor, in Cairns filming a movie, who may or may not helicopter into the lodge for the weekend.

In a few minutes, Garry and I will venture back into the sun and unload the fuel. Then I guess we’ll have to start thinking about heading back down the peninsula, before The Wet catches us and bogs us in.

But for the moment, we’re in the shade, kicking back and savoring our cold beer and conversation—Garry White’s great gifts to The Top.


Author, photojournalist and National Geographic photographer speaker Tom Clynes travels the world covering the adventurous sides of science, the environment, education and archaeology. His work appears in National GeographicThe New York TimesNature, Popular Science, The Atlantic and other publications. As a keynote speaker, Tom works with organizations that want to catalyze creativity and engagement at their events, inspiring audiences with his stories and photos and bringing them along on assignment to fascinating locations around the globe. To contact Tom and find out more about his memorable and motivating programs, please email info@tomclynes.com.

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